Source:Nibley:CW03:Ch18:1:Dissent over the doctrine of a literal Resurrection

Dissent over the doctrine of a literal Resurrection

Dissent over the doctrine of a literal Resurrection

The only real justification for the Christian Easter is the proposition that the resurrection of Christ actually took place—not as a symbol, a myth, a hope, a tradition, or a dream, but as a real event. The Lord himself after the resurrection took the greatest care to impress the literalness of the event on the minds of all his followers. Having risen from the dead, Christ came to his disciples and found them confused, perplexed, incredulous. He "upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen" (Mark 16:14), and showed them in detail how the ancient prophets had actually predicted what had happened. He ordered them to feel him and see for themselves that he was not a spirit, but that the flesh had been resurrected; he ordered food to be brought and ate it in their presence, inviting them to dine with him. He told them that whenever they met after his departure they should continue to eat real bread and drink real wine to remind them that he had been with them in the flesh.

There was need to make this lesson perfectly clear, for men have always been reluctant to believe it. Matthew concludes his gospel with the report that "when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted" (Matthew 28:17). The Apostles had to rebuke members of the church who simply would not believe in the resurrection, and John noted with alarm that "many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh" (2 Jn 1:7). "Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead," writes Paul to the Corinthians, "how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (1 Corinthians 15:12).

Next, the writings of the so-called Apostolic Fathers, the oldest texts to survive after the time of the Apostles, show the spreading and deepening of the anti-resurrection trend in the church. Two charges are constantly brought against church members by the Apostolic Fathers: 1) that they are ashamed of the crucifixion, and 2) that they deny the resurrection. "I know that Christ had a body after the resurrection," cried Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, "and I believe that he still has." (We may note in passing that there is no thought here of a "mystic" body.) Ignatius pleads with the Trallians to believe that Christ "really and truly was born, and he ate and drank, and he was really and actually sentenced under Pontius Pilate, and was actually crucified and died. . . . And that he really and truly was raised from the dead. . . . But if as certain atheists, that is, non-believers, say, he only appeared to have suffered . . . why am I going to fight beasts?" 9 In the longer version Ignatius rebukes those who do not believe in the resurrection; others that say God cannot be known; others that think Christ was unbegotten; others who claim that the Holy Ghost is not a reality; and others who say that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are the same.

The sorrows and alarms of the Apostolic Fathers were followed by the perplexities of the doctors. Most of the early doctors of the church were ardent Hellenists or Neoplatonists, and there was no place in such schools of thought for a God who contaminates himself by contact with the physical or limits himself by taking the form of a man. "We are stunned with the greatest amazement," wrote Origen, perhaps the most influential of all Christian philosophers next to Augustine himself, "that this the most eminent of all natures, putting off its state of majesty, should become a man. . . . It is utterly beyond human comprehension that the Word of the Father . . . should be thought of as confined within that man who appeared in Judea. But that the Wisdom of God should have entered the womb of a woman, and been born a baby, and cried and wailed just like other crying babies, and then suffered death and said that his soul was sorrowful unto death, and been led off to the most undignified of all deaths . . . seeing such things the human intellect is stopped in its tracks, so stunned with amazement that it knows not where to turn. . . . It is far beyond our powers to explain. I suppose it even goes beyond the capacity of the holy Apostles; nay, it is quite possible that the explanation of this sacrament is beyond the powers of all the celestial beings." Not only does Origen not know what to think about the Lord's physical presence on earth; he does not even know what to believe about it, and in his explanations is careful to specify that he is presenting only his "suspicions rather than any manifest affirmations."11 And so he speculates on the resurrection of the flesh: only the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost can live without bodies, he tells us, "because it is right and proper to think of the Trinity alone as existing incorporeally." But then he considers that if one thing can live without a body, others can too, and if others, why not all? "That being the case, bodies will be dispensed with in eternity, there being no need for them. . . . To be subject to Christ is to be subject to God, and to be subject to God is to have no need of a body."12 Commenting on this, St. Jerome writes a century and a half later: "If all things, as this order of reasoning compels us to believe, shall live without body, the whole universe of corporeal things shall be consumed, and return again to that nothing out of which it was created."

Note the vanity of the schoolmen in Origen's remarks: What he cannot conceive of because of his limited experience must necessarily be beyond the grasp of Apostles, angels, and all celestial beings! It is this sublime confidence in the adequacy of one's own knowledge and the finality of one's own experience that makes the resurrection of the flesh the principal thorn in the incorporeal minds of the schoolmen. According to St. Augustine, the resurrection of the flesh is the one thing that the pagans cannot take, it is the one thing with which the philosophers have no patience, and is above all the one thing that distinguishes a Christian from a non-Christian.14 Since it is the one doctrine that makes Christians Christians, it is alarming to learn from St. Augustine that in his day "in nothing is there so much conflict and controversy among Christians themselves as on the subject of the resurrection of the flesh." "On no other matter," he writes, "do they disagree so vehemently, so obstinately, so resolutely, or so contentiously as on the subject of the resurrection of the flesh. For as far as the immortality of the soul is concerned many a pagan philosopher too has argued about that and bequeathed us vast heaps of writings to the effect that the soul is immortal. But when it comes to the resurrection of the flesh they won't argue, but dismiss it out of hand as impossible, and that on the grounds that it is impossible for this earthly flesh to aspire to heaven."[1]


  1. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), Chapter 18, references silently removed—consult original for citations.